The offices of Gearbox Records are only a short walk away from King’s Cross station in London but, once there, one could easily think the place is so far away from the hustle and bustle of the busy metropolis. We meet Darrel Sheinman, the “engine” behind Gearbox Records’ machine, in what would better be described as an Aladdin’s Cave for vinyl junkies!
So we start by talking “beginnings”. I want to know how Darrel started releasing all this high-quality vinyl jazz… Darrel explains that being a drummer first of all and drumming since he was 13 yrs old, playing jazz, funk, rock – all sorts. He then realised a lot of the music that was being released did not give a true snapshot in time. “Music should be just like a snapshot in time, like a photograph actually” (he smiles convincingly). He says so much is over-produced, so he reckoned if he could record something in one or two takes, whether straight to tape or through analogue, and then reproduce it through the highest quality format of analogue, which is vinyl, “…well, reel to reel is” he remarks. When he talks about it as a consumer format, vinyl is the one, then and only then, he feels he should definitely do it. Starting a “hobby label” in 2009 with two releases, which he licensed from the BBC being Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott, he soon found himself selling out of both, so he repeats the process. The releases do well again, and then again, and by 2012 the decision was taken to build the Gearbox studio, to which he is subsequently introduced, by a friend of his, to Hugh Padgham and goes full-time. Soon after, Adam Sieff joins the Gearbox team.
Initially the label started with archival jazz recordings – all previously unreleased material, which, to Darrel, is a critical message to get across. They will entertain releasing re-issues, but only really special projects, although they haven’t done any yet! Historic jazz, started out as British jazz, with its material being rather obscure, so Darrel felt he needed to widen the remit, and they now cover all sorts of unreleased jazz with contemporary front line musicians also forming part of the discography. They have worked with folk and/or alternative mixed with electronica, most notably with Max Cooper (who is big on techno-dance and has a DJ background although also a PhD in genetic science…. ) – we both can’t help smiling at that! “Max writes his own stuff” says Darrel, who helped produce something that fused jazz trumpet with vocals with electronic beat. Darrel says “it was an interesting venture!”
Gearbox also have Slowly Rolling Camera, a new electronica band with a bit more Cinematic Orchestra sound. On the folkier side, there is Sasha Siem on the label, and they are about to work with Emily Barker too, which is the artist Darrel had playing when we arrived. They have also signed contemporary young jazz artists, Moses Boyd and Binker Golding, who recorded straight-to-tape in Mark Ronson’s studio, just the two of them so it was really raw jazz punk. Again, very very interesting sound. Kate Tempest is also another artist on the label with her “Brand New Ancients” album, which has a rap meets poetry umbrella.
…But something comes to mind straight away. I ask Darrel whether there has been a lot of material to source from and if so, where it has come from? It is an easy answer: it is a yes! A lot of it came from the BBC, although not so much anymore, and not because there is nothing left, but rather because musicians tend to give a lot of stuff directly to the label as they now know of its existence. For example, somebody approached them recently with a wonderful archive from radio broadcasting. Darrel points at some shelves over the other side of the studio from where we are sitting. “There are Charlie Mingus’s debut tapes over there on the shelves, for example”. An absolute treasure trove. Darrel also mentions that there is a record label called Debut, which had a Danish arm, something with a lot of broadcasts archived – all totally unreleased. An interesting stockpile…
I ask Darrel how he managed then to be allowed in to the BBC archives, which have clearly been pivotal to some glorious findings. Darrel explains that he knew there was stuff there. The actual original way he got in was through his good relationship with the British Library and a curator by the name of Paul Wilson, who was very helpful with the setting up of the label. [In fact Gearbox was almost called Curator Records] Paul guided Darrel to the BBC catalogue and because they archive many BBC items, Darrel was able to listen to a lot of material there, so inevitably approached them and got to know Simon Gurney, the Head of BBC Licensing where another good relationship was born.
Another important point we discuss is the actual condition of the source material – a pivotal element for the Gearbox’s ethos. Darrel explains: “The first criteria of the label is to try and find material that doesn’t need any alteration. The whole point of this label is ‘purity’. Starting from pure source, maintaining purity of sound, trying ‘all analogue’ if possible. So we try not to do anything and if we have to, we use iZotope, which is a good digital restoration programme. Only a couple of our recordings have had that treatment. As for the length of time for the cleaning, this really depends on how much work is needed. So, for example, on two particular materials, one needed overall texturing and another one was in need of repair, which, obviously, took a bit longer. It’s very much a case-by-case scenario.”
We move on to talk about press runs. This is very revealing: Darrel is a perfectionist and explains: “We tend to do 500 to 1000. We are quite sticky on quality control as well. A lot of people fail to really listen to their test pressings. We always order and listen to test pressings, which is what you saw me doing when you came in. We are rigorous about it. We also work with pressing plants who have great quality control. We press in Germany and the Vinyl Factory in the UK. If something is rejected, we reject it – it’s as simple as that. We either re-cut it or they have to re-do it. To me, criteria, well, it is very difficult; we are now working with a legendary mastering engineer, Ray Staff, to do a quality control document for labels and artists. Really simple to do: what you should be looking out for. How to create great vinyl records. When that comes out at some point this year, it will hopefully stabilize the market, because vinyl has been out for a while and now it’s been in for the last five years and growing. There is a lack of quality control. People don’t do acetate checks. We offer acetate cut before we send off to plant for example. There are a number of steps that one can do to ensure you get the right product at the end of the situation.”
In this digital era, I am curious to ask Darrel what, in his opinion, is the best platform for selling material. Gearbox sell online, directly to their customers online, they also self-distribute into a number of record shops – those shops who buy regularly from them, they call them the “Gearbox dealer network”, which amount to around 40 shops world-wide. The remaining shops are supplied through distributors. So there are distributors in France, in Spain, with direct sales to Japan, America, Germany, the UK. There is clearly a lot of travelling involved visiting shops to secure the first orders, but that’s the old-fashioned way, and one that hopefully proves profitable and productive. I ask Darrel if he minds all this travel-related “reconnaissance” work? “I am used to travelling, I worked in Maritime Security before and that was global so I was constantly travelling. The travel I do now is quite benign, to be honest. A forthcoming trip, to give you an idea, is one to Scandinavia: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, etc…” And then we come to the crunch. As I sit with Darrel I am aware of all the beautiful equipment on display so a question that he will certainly be used to, but nevertheless an important one, is “explain” all this equipment?
“I don’t believe in the fact that a a piece of equipment is good because it is old. What I believe is that there are pieces of equipment that are old which are good, who’s budget was so huge at manufacture and built to a very high specification, and one which you cannot replicate nowadays.”
At this point we walk round the studio to take a look at a few specimen. “So, for example”, Darrel explains, “there is a Studer C37 valve reel-to-reel, the best ever made. It’s got a wonderful sound and it is in excellent condition. Even with artists that have recorded digitally or source material digitally, Gearbox will put through the tape before cutting. It makes a difference, it creates a natural compression, a natural saturation, it broadens the sound stage. And that’s really where it all starts.” There is an incredible variety of rare pieces of machinery everywhere around the studio. I stare in awe: some are back-up machines, some are for emulating domestic quarter tracks, there is a legendary EMT 948 turntable courtesy of an auction at the BBC Bush House. Darrel explains they are great turntables, very stable, very transparent and give clean reproduction, if they need to master off vinyl they use that. And for monitoring they use AudioNote, the owner of AudioNote kindly lent them some of his best pieces, beautifully hand-made pieces. Probably the best modern hi-fi make in the world. There is also a main mastering desk (analogue not digital), a Maselec.
Darrel tells me one has to pick the right pieces that go with the different situation: most of the pieces will be vintage but not all of them. There is mixture of ancient and old: the aim is to create the perfect sound. There is an incredible and, in mint condition, RCA KU3A from 1959 – an amazing and very rare microphone (only 600 were made at the time for Hollywood!). There is a vintage Telefunken, the European Fairchild, another legendary piece of equipment – I am basically surrounded by the perfect combination of modern and vintage. Every piece has a history, has a use.
It is fascinating to watch Darrel walk around the studio showing off his ‘riches’: a truly remarkable experience.
And since Gearbox are also recording music, I ask Darrel how they sell worldwide. Every license they have is for global territory. They cannot control of course where things are sold and it’s not really fair on the artist if they do either, as they invariably would have to do the necessary contracts to cover each. So instead, what they do is to produce a vinyl record with a free download on it so they make sure they get the rights to do that. And often they also get the rights to do digital on streaming platforms. They do not do CDs, although these can be arranged for promos and gigs if the artists need them for publicity and marketing. Sales wise, different territories behave better than others. “Japan has been good although not recently” explains Darrel. They are good in Germany and growing in the US, too, slowly but surely.
On an important note, we talk about the people behind the label. Financially? Well then that’s Darrel, as he basically started Gearbox and built it. Adam Sieff joined in November 2012, bringing great music industry experience, having worked with Sony Music for 11 years as Director of Jazz. He has also worked with Dune Records and was a record producer and session guitar player, famously playing on eleven TV series of Spitting Image including their million selling single ‘The Chicken Song’. He brings label and marketing expertise whilst Darrel handles the A&R and production.
Gearbox has released a Jazz Jamaica recording on vinyl so the obvious question for Darrel was if they have any plans to mine the Dune vaults for other recordings that came out on CD at the time? He tells me not at the moment but may be a future possibility. The thing is that they have so much to do: a joint venture with Ronnie Scott’s where they have the ‘Live at’ label together and they are in the process of recording with new bands that come through plus Darrel has recently found an archive of unreleased Ronnie’s players from the early 1960s including great names like Sonny Rollins and Roland Kirk.
There is the Debut collection, and the Front Line stuff coming through. They are literally up-to-their-eyes with it all. (There is a sparkle in Darrel’s eyes as he describes all this). But being busy means having to raise finances at the same time to expand. There are three full time currently, the third one being Jonny Firth, who is on his ‘out’ year of his University of Surrey Tonmeister Degree Course and works with Gearbox for two days each week, so further staffing might be necessary with growth. Space wise, they have taken the studio next door, and are planning to cut out a window in there so that there is a link with the main room (we are in), so that this room can be the ops/production room and next door will be used as the office and as a preview/listening suite for A&R.
Not all Gearbox releases are one-off limited runs though. They used to do them, but Darrel thinks it’s artificial to only do that: making people believe that this is something more special than it is. So if they do do one-offs, they want it to be something special, they have to be numbered for example or have to be signed, or even have to have something about them that really makes them totally different. “Just to say it is a limited edition, is meaningless to me. Not only that, but much as I feel very passionate about this, and I want the best products ever, I am also in the business to make money and if we limit editions to 500 or a 1000 pieces, and you find you could have sold 2000, you are shooting yourself in the foot frankly.” With the secondary market on eBay, for example, one will find it will go up in price, which is not fair on other punters. So if Gearbox decides to do limited editions, they make sure those collectors can get them and they are numbered or scored in the dead wax or even signed by the artist to give them that ‘something special’.
And the best releases so far? There are many!
Darrel’s enthusiasm mounts as he starts mentioning a few: Nucleus with Leon Thomas, the first official release of the June 1970 Montreux Jazz Festival, a double album. Michael Garrick Sextet, “Prelude to Heart is a Lotus” recorded 1967 at Maida Vale studios, again unreleased. Darrel tells us he had been working with Michael Garrick before he died and had decided he was not going to put it out as he thought it was bad taste but then his son, Gabriel, said “you have got to put it out”. So he did and it obviously sold well. Kate Tempest’s “Brand New Ancients” is another best release. so too the Slowly Rolling Camera release which is selling well [They are signed to Edition Records but Gearbox had a partnership arrangement with the vinyl].
Oh, and of course there’s the Tubby Hayes material!
So for a UK label that is certainly making a difference we wish them every success with future products and hope they go from strength to strengths.
Gearbox Records Discography (Updated October 2016)
GB1535 Dexter Gordon – Fried Bananas (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1534 BBC Late Junction Sessions: (Un)popular Music (2×12” 45rpm LP)
GB1533 Nico – BBC Sessions 1971 (12” 45rpm EP)
GB1532 The Tubby Hayes Quartet – The Syndicate: Live At The Hipbone Vol.1 (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1531 Applewood Road – Applewood Road (12” 33rpm LP)
GB1530 Binker and Moses – Dem Ones (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1529 Nucleus With Leon Thomas – Live 1970 (2×12” 33rpm LP)
GB1528 Kathrin deBoer – EP1 (10″ 33rpm EP)
GB1527 Kate Tempest – Brand New Ancients (2×12” 33rpm LP)
GB1526 Dexter Gordon – Soy Califa (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1525 Max Cooper feat Kathrin deBoer & Quentin Collins – Tileyard Improvisations Vol. 1 (12” 45rpm Mini LP)
GB1524 Sasha Siem – Proof (7″ 45rpm single)
GB1523 The Tubby Hayes Quartet – Seven Steps To Heaven: Live At The Hopbine 1972 (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1522 Slowly Rolling Camera – Slowly Rolling Camera (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1521 Slowly Rolling Camera – Protagonist / Color (7″ 45rpm single)
GB1520 Michael Horovitz/Damon Albarn/Graham Coxon/Paul Weller – Bankbusted Nuclear Detergent Blues (12” 33rpm LP)
GB1519 Michael Horovitz/Damon Albarn/Graham Coxon/Paul Weller – Ballade Of The Nocturnal Commune (7” 45rpm single)
GB1518 The Live New Departures Jazz Poetry Septet – Blues For The Hitchhiking Dead (2×12” 33rpm LP box set)
GB1517 Michael Garrick Sextet/Don Rendell/Ian Carr – Prelude to Heart is a Lotus (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1516 Back Door – BBC ‘In Concert’ (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1515 Mark Murphy – A Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn (12″ 33rpm EP)
GB1514 Ronnie Scott Quintet featuring Alan Skidmore – BBC Jazz Club (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1513 Kenny Wheeler/Norma Winstone/London Vocal Project – Mirrors (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1512 Simon Spillett – Square One (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1511 Sasha Siem – So Polite (10” 45rpm EP)
GB1510 The Jazz Couriers – Live in Morecambe 1959 – Tippin’ (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1509 Jazz Jamaica All Stars – Massive Vol 1 (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1508 Ronnie Scott Quintet & Phil Seamen Quintet – BBC Jazz Club (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1507 Dick Morrissey with Michael Garrick Trio – The Girl With The Brown Hair (12” 45rpm EP)
GB1506 Joe Harriott – Partying With Joe (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1505 Don Rendell Quintet – BBC Jazz For Moderns (10” 45rpm EP)
GB1504 Michael Garrick Quartet – Silhouette (12″ 33rpm LP)
GB1503 Joe Harriott Quintet – BBC Jazz For Moderns (12” 45rpm LP)
GB1502 Tubby Hayes Band – BBC Jazz For Moderns (12″ 33rpm LP)
RSGB1008 Yusef Lateef – Live at Ronnie Scott’s, 15th January 1966 – (12″ 33rpm LP)
RSGB1002 The James Taylor Quartet – Bumpin’ On Frith Street (12″ 33rpm LP)
RSGB1001 The Ronnie Scott Quartet – 1612 Overture (10″ 33rpm EP)
GBBJ1001 NTS Trio – Basement Jaxx and Gearbox Records present the Valve Mastered Sevens (7” 45rpm single)